Mark L. Krupnick

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 656

Rahv is best known as an editor, since its founding in 1934, of Partisan Review. [The essays in Literature and the Sixth Sense] are very much the writings of a partisan and public man who is as much concerned about influencing cultural debate as in elucidating texts. So this is literary criticism of a special kind: the essay as position paper, as a tactical exercise in a continuing war of ideas. Rahv acknowledges the influence of psychoanalysis, existentialism and anthropology, and he uses all of these resources of modern criticism to good effect; but his method depends basically on Marxism, with its stress on the social determinants of literature, the art object as it exists in the dimension of time. The modern consciousness of time, the sense of history, is the "sixth sense" of Rahv's title. (p. 607)

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The wit and vivacity of [Rahv's] early essays are a reminder how much good criticism is like good talk, how much it depends on a community of interest and the free flow of ideas. In the years of the Moscow trials, the Spanish Civil War, and America's entry into World War II, Rahv was able to derive as much from ideologically conservative critics like Eliot, Tate and Yvor Winters as he had earlier from Trotsky. In the writings of all of them the problem of belief holds a central place. Thus the Hawthorne essay concludes with one of Rahv's excellent codas, in which he contrasts Hawthorne's religious imagination with Dostoevsky's, denying to the American writer the profundity of the Russian's consciousness of sin and evil, which "flows from a mighty effort to regain a metaphysical and religious consciousness" in a disintegrating society suffering—unlike Hawthorne's America—from a chaos of experience and a derangement of values.

This Augustinian protest against the city of man appears also in the coda to "The Heiress of All the Ages" …, in which the emblem of Henry James's worldliness—the American heroine's imperial dream of conquering the Old World—is contrasted with Proust's less idealized vision of the "great world," and his overcoming of it in art. James's Americans, in Rahv's view, have arrived so belatedly at their conversion to experience that they cannot afford the spiritual luxury of looking beyond it, of challenging its authority.

These large literary-historical generalizations are the most stimulating aspect of Rahv's work, providing a conceptual frame for the close studies of texture and formal design of most American criticism. But his pleasure in literary ideas accounts for a certain impatience with most American writing, in which private sensibility and experience count for more than general ideas. (pp. 607-08)

In the most recent essay in this collection, Rahv notes of T. S. Eliot that there existed in him "an empirical critic of genius … as well as a fretful and conscience-ridden Christian preceptor." There is nothing of the true believer in Philip Rahv's make-up, but of late there has been all too much of the preceptor. He now seems trapped by a narrow and reflexive moralism wholly absent from his earlier work. His feeling for decorum has hardened to the degree that he can describe as "sensible" Eliot's ex cathedra dismissal of Lawrence. And Mailer is discussed not as a writer but as the symbol for everything Rahv detests in our present cultural situation.

But jeremiads do not take the place of concrete historical and literary analysis. In his attacks on neo-primitivism, pornography, narcissism and other heresies of contemporary Romanticism, Rahv begins to sound like Irving Babbitt struggling against the modernist flood in the twenties. The perverse subjectivity of recent fiction has its historical causes; and a doctrinaire pessimism is no better way of understanding them than a contentless religiosity. The fact is, indulged in long enough, saying no can also become a kind of religion. (p. 608)

Mark L. Krupnick, "A Partisan and Public Man," in The Nation (copyright 1969 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 209, No. 19, December 1, 1969, pp. 607-08.

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